We’re officially one week from the 95th Academy Awards, and in these final days, the task falls upon me to begin officially closing the book on 2022 cinema. I was able to clear the vast majority of the Oscar nominees before they were even announced, and in my pursuit of hopefuls and also-rans after the calendar turned over, I increased my viewing by 20 films, bringing my grand total for last year’s movie canon to 136.
I’ve already shared posts completing the shortlists for Documentary Feature and International Feature, a satisfying conclusion to two of the three specialty feature categories. Only one remains, and that is Animated Feature. As previously mentioned, there is no shortlist for this field, only the announcement of the films submitted and deemed eligible by the Academy. For 2022, a total of 27 films cleared the preliminary hurdle, pending their fulfillment of the rest of the requirements, including for theatrical release. I made only the second truly concerted effort I’ve ever done to track everything down and clear all the entries, and tonight the time has come to finish the affair. In addition to full reviews for a good chunk of the candidates, I’ve also had this “Back Row Thoughts” mini-series to chronicle the process (Here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you need to catch up).
There are three films remaining of the 27 that began this journey. What quality do they have? Do they stick out several weeks after viewing? Should any of them have been nominated in place of one of the finalists going to Oscar Night? It’s time to put a bow on this puppy.
New Gods: Yang Jian
While we here in America languish under the yoke of franchise fatigue and constant IP recycling, there is an intriguing series taking shape in China, one that reimagines the country’s classical mythology as high-octane animated adventures. Beginning with White Snake in 2019, Chinese animation studio, Light Chaser, has carved out an interesting niche with these steampunk-inspired legendary tales, with the latest being New Gods: Yang Jian.
Based on the legend of Erlang Shen (voiced by Nicholas Andrew Louie in the English dub), a god known for his third eye which allowed him to see the truth, this particular film imagines a martial arts saga about the power of family (those of blood and those freely chosen), the ways we process grief, and the honor of self-sacrifice. It’s a fairly simple tale executed in grand fashion, to the point that well over a month after seeing it, I can still remember entire sequences vividly.
One of the many fables of Erlang Shen as Yang Jian (many ancient gods are depicted with human names and forms in various media, and Jian is regarded as the most common) is that he once chopped a mountain in half in order to save his mother, who was punished by the gods for marrying a mortal man. As penance for his own interference, this version of Jian has had his third eye blinded, leaving him to lead only a semi-charmed kind of life (I’m so, so sorry… no I’m not) as a bounty hunter in a heavenly realm separate from the human world. Never one to step back from a ledge (still not sorry), he leads a ragtag crew on a small airship tracking down fugitives, and using his godly strength to apprehend them for just enough money to subsist.
Jian is troubled by a request by the head of his order, Yuding (Parry Shen) to track down a highly-skilled assassin named Chenxiang (Luke Naphat Sath), who also happens to be Jian’s nephew, left with Yuding as an infant when Jian’s sister Chan (Risa Mei) was imprisoned in a similar manner to Jian’s mother. Now a teenager, Chenxiang has trained with another exiled god, the chaotic Shen Gongbao (James Sie), to bring down Yuding’s order and save Yang Chan. Not wanting to see history tragically repeat itself, Jian sets out, at first to capture Chenxiang but then to protect him, aided by the mysterious and beautiful Wanluo (Christine Lin), who knows far more than she lets on.
In the lighter moments, this movie feels like a collection of cutscenes from a role-playing video game. I got strong Final Fantasy and Xenoblade Chromicles vibes at times, especially when it came to Jian’s crew. The savvy viewer may even see parallels to the Cowboy Bebop series, particularly in one member of Jian’s posse, who depending on the scene is an excitable teenage girl or an excitable dog. A lot of the motivations of these side characters are either left to interpretation or treated as read for an audience in China that I presume is more familiar with the various source materials than an outsider like myself.
But the meat of the story, and the associated animation, is just breathtaking. I remember when I saw White Snake that I was struck by how graceful and gorgeous a lot of the scenes were, particularly during fight scenes as well as expositional moments led by radiantly-designed women characters that almost bordered on the erotic. That continues with Yang Jian, as Light Chaser expertly crafts some Matrix-level combat to offset the sheer beauty of the character designs, which are effective at lulling the inattentive viewer into an almost hypnotic state of confusion before dropping the next massive twist in the plot.
There are still a few kinks to work out in the overall process, but this is the second film I’ve seen in this loose series (which in MCU fashion teased the next entry, due in Chinese theatres this summer, during the credits), and I continue to be fascinated with the style and the storytelling. There’s a deliberate artistic heft in these stories, one that genuinely makes me curious about the history of these ancient epics, and sparking a desire for further learning and imagination can only be a good thing. Hopefully the series gets a little more attention here in the West going forward.
Speaking of the thirst for knowledge, Lamya’s Poem sneakily became one of the best animated films of the year because of its focus on learning and study as a mechanism to heal even the worst of traumas, told with empathetic gusto in a context that reinforces the core message through its all-too-real modern sadness. It took forever to find it (released on VOD platforms two weeks ago), but it was well worth the wait.
Lamya (Millie Davis from Wonder and Good Boys) is a young girl growing up in Aleppo, Syria, who is obsessed with literature. Dedicated to her love of reading, she’s given a new assignment from her teacher, Mr. Hamadani (Raoul Bhaneja), to study the poetry of Jalaladin Rumi (Mena Massoud, aka live-action Aladdin), a renowned author whose work has endured for centuries and is revered by nearly all sectors of the Muslim world. Before she can truly begin exploring, however, reality deals her two very harsh blows. First, her backpack is stolen with the book inside by a boy named Bassam (Nissae Isen). As she searches frantically in hopes of not disappointing Mr. Hamadani, Lamya is caught in a much worse calamity, as her neighborhood is bombed from the sky, another casualty of the civil war fomented by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Lamya is unharmed, and is able to recover her belongings from the rubble, but soon Rumi’s poems are all the comfort she has in the world, as she becomes a refugee and is separated from her mother (Aya Bryn) on the way to Europe. When she reaches the somewhat safe haven of a camp underneath a freeway, she reunites with Bassam, and learns that part of his mischief-making is because he’s illiterate. She decides to read to him, forging a friendship and alleviating some of her stress in the real world as she waits for news of her mother, but of course she can’t fully shake the dread that has surrounded her life.
This is compounded by a series of lifelike dreams in which she meets Rumi. The young poet’s life echoes her own, as marauding warriors destroy his home and force him and his people to wander the desert in search of the protection of Mecca. The anger that festers within him threatens to destroy not only his love of language, but his capacity for human compassion, as well as, you know, his life. It’s up to Lamya to remind him in this dream world of his gentleness in the face of crippling rage and mounting violence.
The story is heartwarming in the extreme, and the animation is just lovely. There’s a runner on the visual metaphor of an ancient flute being “planted” as a “reed,” allowing its peaceful sound to spread, that is among the best sights of all cartoon fare last year, for example. Not to be outdone are the designs on the monstrous representations within Lamya’s dream/Rumi’s world of how hatred spreads. The overall message that peace and love is fostered through knowledge and art is simple yet essential, and depicted here about as perfectly as you can hope for in a way that will still resonate with young audiences. In a world where so much can be destroyed so easily, it is crucial that children are taught vital lessons in forgiveness, tolerance, and the value of education, and Lamya’s Poem gets these ideas across in fantastic fashion.
Run, Tiger Run!
Oh well, can’t win ’em all. As far as I know, this Chinese entry never made it stateside. According to Fandango it was released last February, but that was the domestic debut in China. I found a few links for isolated screenings that took place shortly afterward, but for all intents and purposes, this film was just not available for American viewers. As such, I’m calling this a win with an asterisk. When the Academy releases the list of eligible films each year, it’s with the caveat that those that haven’t yet been released must still make a qualifying run to be considered. As Run, Tiger Run! appears to have never had that release, I’m assuming that its candidacy was rescinded. So as far as I’m concerned, there were only 26 films that cleared all the hurdles to get in front of Academy voters, and I saw them all!
If I’m proven wrong on this, oh well. You think I’m going to sneeze at 26 of 27? Hell no! This was a great experiment, and falling one short only gives me that much more motivation to clear the whole field this year. There are a couple of animated films that have been released so far in 2023 that I have not seen yet, but they’re on my radar, and I’ll certainly be looking for VOD and streaming runs later in the year if they end up getting submitted. Thanks as always for taking this trip with me, and I’m super excited to see what this year has to offer after such a strong resurgence in animation quality!
Join the conversation in the comments below! How many submitted films did you see? Did your favorites get nominated? Which was the most underrated in your opinion? Let me know!